Scene of the Crime

My Life in a Cave

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More tales of Vienna and Europe in the Cold War:

Agatha Christie did not title her novel Murder on the Orient Express for nothing. Thirty-plus hours of standing from Vienna to Athens is a kind of slow murder. Or sitting on the floor in the grimy vestibule by the cans until a conductor comes by to kick your feet and tells you, in languages from German to Serbo-Croate to Greek the get the hell up and out of the way of respectable passengers.

There are few respectable passengers traveling second class, mostly cars full of students going south from Vienna for the semester break. This is 1969; Greece, despite being ruled by the Junta, is the destination of every college age kid in Europe that February. The twice-weekly Orient Express is overbooked as usual.

I am traveling with a buddy from Oregon who has come over to Vienna for a visit. Said buddy is also trying to get me to stop smoking, so he hid my ciggies before we got on the train. Thus, I can’t even strike a romantic or existential pose with one of my cheapie Austrian oval-shaped nonfilters. We do come prepared with food and water, but the wurstsemmeln last only the first day, the bottled water is gone about the same time. So we live from stop to stop along the line in Yugoslavia, buying food from vendors at the stations where the train halts.

But it all seems worth it that second day as the train snakes through the mountains of northern Greece. Sun plays on orange groves and sheep stumble about in rocky fields under the shade of olive trees. We have another six hours to go; I think I might survive.

Athens is bustle and the smell of roasting coffee and souvlakia stands. We gorge on the latter upon arrival. I begin looking at once for a hotel, a clean bed where I can sleep off the effects of the marathon train trip. But my buddy is the economy-minded sort–we are headed for Crete. He does not want to waste money on an Athens hotel room. So after a quick stop at the flea market where I pick up an army surplus sleeping bag with a suggestive rusty  stain about abdomen height, we head for the port of Piraeus where are just in time for the overnight ferry.

At least there is sitting room on the ferry; there is also puking room as the seas kicked up about three in the morning. I surprise myself, discovering that I am not a bad sailor. Others, Greeks and foreigners alike, hug the the filthy toilets while I curl up on a couple of chairs and try my best to catch up on sleep, with little luck.

Next morning, Iraklion is all sun and the jostle of burros and three-wheeled Hiace vans unloading goods brought on the ferry from Athens. It is also our first meeting with the Junta. Two thick-set policemen beckon us into the passport control office at the port. We explain in a bit of English mixed with German the purpose of our visit: tourism. The police stare at us like we are rather interesting specimens of the dung beetle. They go through our luggage. In a band-aid tin they find the cigarettes my buddy had hidden from me.

I eye my buddy, but he keeps his head down.

I can’t understand the words they are saying, but I get the message: “What kind of cigarettes do you hide in a band-aid tin?” One of them pulls a ciggie out, sniffs at it, rolls it between his fingers, amused at its oval shape.

“So they don’t break,” I quickly say in both English and German, taking one, putting it in my shirt pocket. Then I scratch at my chest under the pocket in a actorly gesture of absent-mindedness and pull out the crushed cigarette by way of example.

“Safer this way.”

The cops exchange looks, but they can smell it is tobacco, not hash. One of the cops lights up, chokes on the harsh tobacco and stubs it out, eyes watering.

They leave us to clean up the mess of our backpacks.

On our way again, my buddy says, “That was close.”

“Next time, don’t play around with my ciggies.”

“Probably saved us. Took their interest off my bottle of vitamins.”

Turns out my buddy has several tabs of acid stowed away there.

“Wonderful. Makes me feel so much better,” I tell him.

The bus does not leave until the afternoon. We have had the destination in mind from the start: Matala on the south coast, a little village whose headlands hold natural and artificial caves. Free rent for wandering hipsters. Me, I’m a student not really a hipster. But it sounds good.

It doesn’t really feel so good though, when we arrive late that night in the middle of a monsoon. It is pissing down rain and there is no room at the inn. There is no inn either, just the previously mentioned caves. And they are full, as a late-night carouser at the village’s only taverna rather too gleefully informs us. He’s an American like us; schadenfreude is supposed to be a Germanic vice.

My buddy is resourceful, though. There is a thick grove of trees to the south of the village the bus passed through; they’ll give us some cover during the night. We trudge back down the road a ways, picking our way in the deep blackness of the Cretan night, and sleep rough, huddled in our bags which become increasingly soaked. But we are both so tired we don’t care.

The morning dawns clear. New day, new beginning. I stretch out a hand. It comes back with toilet paper on it. I look out of my bag; the ground under our grove of trees is littered with white balls of toilet paper. I sniff once. Then again.

“It’s a freaking latrine!” my buddy yells.

He has a gift for saying the bloody obvious. We had indeed slept in the hipster toilet overnight.

The wonders of modern plumbing have not reached this ancient country, it seems.

We pick our way out of that turd-littered minefield and get back to the village. There we take a restorative dip in the wine dark sea–good for expunging all sort of stains, both emotional and physical. Then we indulge ourselves with a potato omelet–the staple food of Matala. Soon the village is alive with excitement, and it is not for our arrival. Seems a rock has fallen from the roof of one of the artificial caves during the night, crushing the pelvis of the woman lying asleep on the cave floor below. There are no ambulances; the one couple in the village with a car volunteers to take the injured woman to Timbaki, closest town with a doctor.

My buddy suggests that maybe now there is a vacancy, but I act like I do not hear this.

Finally, later that day and on the tip of the local grocer who worked in Austria for a time after the war, we discover a series of natural caves on the headland on the other side of the village from the artificial caves. Unlike those–which were dug into the limestone during the Neolithic and at time of Roman occupation (and used, rumor had it, to house either dead bodies or lepers)–the ones we found were huge and craggy, filled with stalactites and stalagmites like a proper cave should be. Fishermen use some of them to store their gear. We pick a suitably baronial one and set up house.

Soon we are joined with another friend from Vienna; the Three Musketeers are born. We live apart from those in what we think of as the fake caves; eat simply for a month of tinned sardines, feta cheese, olives, onions, bread, and retsina; swim daily in the warm water, explore nearby ruins. I read Anna Karenina for the first time and discover how wonderful words really are. At night we tell stories of travels and old girlfriends by candlelight, and waking in the morning, usually find the candles missing. Packrats.

I gave up ciggies that trip. Not really my thing. And the tabs of acid? Never used. The same wax-eating packrats must have made off with them. I often wonder about the mutant packrats that must populate those caves now.

With thanks to Bruce Kester for some “historic” photos.

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